How aid could benefit the hungry

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or as it is also known), chapter 10 of World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998) has been reproduced and posted here. Due to the length of the chapter, it has been split into sub pages on this site.

Whether U.S. foreign aid can benefit the hungry depends on how our government defines our national interest. Thus, a first step in putting ourselves on the side of the hungry is to work to change our government’s definition of our national interest. Less control-less striving to make the world conform to the U.S. model and respond to U.S. fears-would actually mean more security for all.

After years of studying our foreign aid program, we have learned that foreign aid is only as good as the recipient government. Foreign aid only reinforces the status quo. It cannot transform an antidemocratic process working against the majority into a participatory government shaped in its interests. Where the recipient government answers only to a narrow economic elite or foreign corporations, our aid not only fails to reach the hungry, it girds the very forces working against them.

We do not suggest that we simply abolish foreign aid. The accumulated debt “owed” to the third world by Northern countries for centuries of unbridled profit taking through conquest, colonialism, mineral and other natural resource extraction, unequal trade, labor exploitation, and other forms of corporate pillage is too great to say nothing should be sent back.70

The problem is how to give something back, since as we’ve seen in this chapter, even the best-intentioned humanitarian aid can have negative consequences if the recipient government is based on elite local and foreign interests.

An immediate step that we as citizens can take is to tell our representatives that the best use for our money is not supporting the status quo but alleviating the largest economic barrier to true development in the third world-its foreign debt.

The combined debt of third world countries reached almost $2 trillion in 1996.71 The bulk was accumulated largely as a result of Northern banks-flush with the “petrodollars” deposited with them by oil-producing countries in the 1970s-needing to place an unprecedented volume of loans. Once developed countries were“borrowed out,” the banks turned to the third world, like snake-oil salesmen, selling huge loans for megaprojects that many knew would never pan out. The structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s have been designed in part to induce the third world to pay off that debt; the IMF and World Bank acting out the role of debt collectors for private banks. In various refinancing agreements, the debt owed to private banks has been assumed by agencies like the IMF, who are ultimately funded by taxpayers, and to whom much of the debt is now owed.72

That debt-for which the lenders bear as much or more responsibility than the borrowers, is now stifling economic development and social services throughout the third world. Repayments from Zambia to the IMF between 1991 and 1993 were $335 million, compared to $37 million spent on primary education. In Honduras, annual debt payments exceed the amount spent on health and education combined.73

In fact, annual interest payments alone by all third world countries amounted to $81 and $85 billion in 1994 and 1995, respectively, roughly equal to the $80 and $90 billion they received in total direct foreign investment and easily outstripping the $48 and $64 billion they received in total development assistance from Northern countries. Total debt payments (principal plus interest) were $190 and $213 billion in the same years, greater than the sum of investment plus assistance.74

Our institute and two hundred other organizations have joined together in the 50 Years is Enough Campaign against the IMF and the World Bank. These two institutions, which celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries in 1994, play key roles in policing the third world’s debt. The campaign calls for debt relief for third world countries. Aid dollars could be made into something positive and noninterventionist if they were spent on debt relief-as long as they were not tied to structural adjustment-like conditions, which are so onerous for the poorer majorities.

One could argue that such unconditional debt relief might not end up benefiting the hungry, either-because most third world governments do not truly represent their poor majorities. This is a legitimate concern-yet, in the end, if we have learned anything, it is that real change starts with people themselves. Our job is to not block that change through conditional aid, or equally conditioned debt relief, that mandates the strengthening of a status quo in which the rich get more powerful and the poor more marginalized. If we allow our government and major lending institutions to “get a foot in the door” by agreeing that debt relief be conditioned-with our conditions, of course-we will most likely see the conditions distorted to meet ends other than those we support, just as has happened with originally well-intentioned foreign aid.

Rather, we must make our government and corporations stop blocking change-that is perhaps the most important step in making real change possible in third world countries. As individuals, and through the organizations we belong to, we can also support the movements of local people to bring about change on their own terms. We should not think or act as though we know better than they-or that we can or should tell them what to do or how to do it.

Understanding the nature of U.S. foreign aid-that it does not, and in most countries, cannot, help the hungry-does not lead necessarily to a there’s-nothing-I-can-do dead end. It is actually the first step in perceiving the many and varied actions open to all who are determined to end world hunger. In our concluding essay, and in the other publications of our institute, we offer suggestions as to how to seize the opportunities all around us.

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  • Posted: Saturday, November 25, 2000

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